Friday, September 05, 2008

Dictionary Friday: Potato

Such a long definition for such a simple food item.

I've been thinking about potatoes a lot lately. I'm working on a little food history sort of project (it mostly involves me highlighting things and making timelines - I'm still not sure where it's going yet) and I've become fascinated with the way the potato demonstrates cultural norms and what shapes them.

In continental Europe, it generally took a combination of hardcore famine and purposeful, public acceptance by the nobility before the rank and file were willing to eat potatoes. This story varies a bit from culture to culture, of course, but the core pieces are the same. Economics and social and class structure drive everything else.

And isn't that always the case?

The ancient Incas were cultivating this humble tuber thousands of years ago. The potato was not readily accepted in Europe, however, because it was known to be a member of the nightshade family (as are the tomato and eggplant) and therefore thought to be poisonous.

In the 16th century, Sir Walter Raleigh was instrumental in debunking the poisonous potato superstition when he planted them on property he owned in Ireland. The Irish knew a good thing when they saw it and a hundred years later were growing and consuming the potato in great quantities.

Today, hundreds of varieties of this popular vegetable are grown around the world. In America, the potato can be divided into four basic categories: russet, long white, round white and round red. The russet Burbank potato (also simply called russet and Idaho ) is long, slightly rounded and has a brown, rough skin and numerous eyes. Its low moisture and high starch content not only give it superior baking qualities but also make it excellent for FRENCH FRIES. The russet Burbank was named for its developer, horticulturalist Luther Burbank of Idaho. Although grown throughout the Midwest, the russet is also commonly called IDAHO POTATO (whether or not it's grown there). Long white potatoes have a similar shape as the russet but they have thin, pale gray-brown skins with almost imperceptible eyes. They're sometimes called white rose or California long whites , after the state in which they were developed. Long whites can be baked, boiled or fried. The thumb-sized baby long whites are called finger potatoes. The medium-size round white and round red potatoes are also commonly referred to as boiling potatoes . They're almost identical except that the round white has a freckled brown skin and the round red a reddish-brown coat. They both have a waxy flesh that contains less starch and more moisture than the russet and long white. This makes them better suited for boiling (they're both commonly used to make mashed potatoes) than for baking. They're also good for roasting and frying. The round white is grown mainly in the Northeast where it's sometimes referred to by one of its variety names, Katahdin . The round red is cultivated mainly in the Northwest. Yukon gold potatoes have a skin and flesh that ranges from buttery yellow to golden. These boiling potatoes have a moist, almost succulent texture and make excellent mashed potatoes.

There are a variety of relatively new potatoes in the marketplace, most of which aren't new at all but rather heritage vegetables that date back centuries. Among the more distinctive examples are the all blue potatoes, which range in color from bluish purple to purple-black. These small potatoes have a dense texture and are good for boiling. Other purple potatoes have skin colors that range from lavender to dark blue and flesh that can be from white to beige with purple streaking. Among the red-fleshed potatoes are the huckleberry (red skin and flesh) and the blossom (pinkish-red skin and flesh). New potatoes are simply young potatoes (any variety). They haven't had time to convert their sugar fully into starch and consequently have a crisp, waxy texture and thin, undeveloped wispy skins. New potatoes are small enough to cook whole and are excellent boiled or pan-roasted. Because they retain their shape after being cooked and cut, new potatoes are particularly suited for use in potato salad.

The season for new potatoes is spring to early summer. Potatoes of one variety or another are available year-round. Choose potatoes that are suitable for the desired method of cooking. All potatoes should be firm, well-shaped (for their type) and blemish-free. New potatoes may be missing some of their feathery skin but other types should not have any bald spots. Avoid potatoes that are wrinkled, sprouted or cracked. A green tinge — indicative of prolonged light exposure — is caused by the alkaloid solanine, which can be toxic if eaten in quantity. This bitter green portion can be cut or scraped off and the potato used in the normal fashion.

Store potatoes in a cool, dark, well-ventilated place for up to 2 weeks. New potatoes should be used within 3 days of purchase. Refrigerating potatoes causes them to become quite sweet and to turn dark when cooked. Warm temperatures encourage sprouting and shriveling.

Potatoes are probably the most versatile vegetable in the world and can be cooked in any way imaginable. They're available in a wide selection of commercial products including POTATO CHIPS, instant mashed potatoes (dehydrated cooked potatoes), canned new potatoes and a plethora of frozen products including HASH BROWNS, FRENCH FRIES and stuffed baked potatoes. Potatoes are not at all hard on the waistline (a 6-ounce potato contains only about 120 calories) and pack a nutritional punch. They're low in sodium, high in potassium and an important source of complex carbohydrates and vitamins C and B-6, as well as a storehouse of minerals. Neither SWEET POTATOES nor YAMS are botanically related to the potato.

© Copyright Barron's Educational Services, Inc. 1995 based on THE FOOD LOVER'S COMPANION, 2nd edition, by Sharon Tyler Herbst.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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